Talking to Republican friends at the Trumpian crossroads

Talking to Republican friends at the Trumpian crossroads August 30, 2016

Last week I praised Fritz Rohlfing, the state Republican Party chairman for Hawaii, for denouncing the candidate who hijacked his party’s nomination for a U.S. congressional district in his state.

I don’t know anything else about Fritz Rohlfing. I haven’t read deeply about the particulars of Hawaiian Republican politics. I’ve never met the man or even seen his picture. Given that he is a state chairman for the Republican Party, I would assume that he and I disagree — strongly — about quite a few things. I would guess that he and I have very different starting points and arrive at very different conclusions when it comes to things like health care, taxation, Social Security, climate change, public education, poverty, abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, the Pentagon, and the separation of church and state. My commending him for denouncing the erratic, bigoted, nominal “Republican” nominee for the 2nd District seat doesn’t diminish any of those important disagreements. It doesn’t suggest that either one of us is dismissing those many disagreements as unimportant.

But this does involve my granting Rohlfing and his fellow Hawaii Republicans the benefit of the doubt. And, just as significantly, it involves him stepping up to show that this trust is not misplaced.

The statement from Rohlfing that I praised was this one:

I want it understood by the general public and the media that the recent inflammatory comments made by candidate for Congress (CD2) Angela Kaaihue do not represent the views, values, or the sentiments of our Party and its members. … Her vulgar, racially-bigoted, and religiously-intolerant descriptions of Democratic Party candidates are offensive, shameful, and unacceptable in public discourse. … I unconditionally denounce her despicable statements.

I saw in that statement much that was unquestionably true and that I emphatically agree with. Kaaihue’s “vulgar, racially bigoted, and religiously intolerant descriptions” of her opponents are, indeed, “offensive, shameful, and unacceptable in public discourse.” Denouncing such statements unconditionally is, without a doubt, the necessary and appropriate response. That’s why I praised Rohlfing for saying that, and recommended his statement as a model for anyone whose party nomination has been hijacked by an erratic bigot.

In saying so, of course, I also had another erratic bigot in mind — someone whose political success has been greater, and far more consequential for the future of America, and of the Republican Party. I mean Donald Trump, obviously, who captured the Republican Party’s national nomination for president despite — or perhaps because of — his habit of saying things every bit as “offensive, shameful, and unacceptable” and every bit as “inflammatory … vulgar, racially bigoted, and religiously intolerant” as anything said by poor befuddled Angela Kaaihue.

Kaaihue’s case is, perhaps, easier for Republicans to contend with. She doesn’t seem to have any long-term ideological ties to the party and appears to have chosen to run as a Republican based on little more than a coin-flip, or perhaps because she saw less formidable competition in that party’s primary campaign. And she hardly can be said to have won a resounding victory in her primary campaign, securing her nomination with far less than a majority of the total votes.

Both of those things also seem to be true of Donald Trump. And that means that, in Trump’s case just as in Kaaihue’s, there is space for Republican leaders to say that he is an interloper who does not “represent the views, values, or the sentiments of our Party and its members.”

These are my white evangelical friends and they are Very Nice People. I have watched, disheartened, as they have slowly transformed from Bush Republicans into Palin Republicans. I can’t bear to see them further transformed into Trump Republicans.

But that’s not entirely, unreservedly true. While not a majority, the primary voters who endorsed Donald Trump’s views, values, and sentiments — more than 13 million of them — were members of the Republican Party. And they didn’t just agree to accept his views and values, his racially bigoted and religiously intolerant statements — they enthused about him for those very reasons, overjoyed that at last their own, Republican views were being represented.

So we could go another way with Donald Trump. We could refuse to allow other Republicans to attempt to distance themselves from their nominee. In for a penny, in for a pound — he’s all yours. We could argue that the Republican Party created the environment for Donald Trump to thrive — that they seeded the ground and prepared the stage for just such a vulgar, bigoted, intolerant, inflammatory candidate to succeed. And it wouldn’t be hard to back that up with evidence — decades of it, tracing the roots of Trumpism back to Goldwater in 1964 and to Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and Reagan’s, to AM talk radio and Fox News. We could argue, convincingly, that Trump may be somewhat different in degree, but not in kind.

And we absolutely do need to discuss all of that, too. Urgently. There’s much there that needs to be confronted, acknowledged, unpacked and interrogated, reformed and repented of.

But I think that’s our destination, not our first step. Or, at least, it won’t be helpful as a first step in dealing with individual Republicans. Here, again, I would highlight the difference — and the similarity — between “You’re better than this” and “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Those are, ultimately, two ways of getting at the same idea, but one is much likelier to be heard and to be accepted.

I started talking about this before Hillary Clinton’s speech last week in Reno, Nevada, in which she took the same approach to discussing Trump as I took here to discussing Kaaihue. Clinton did not call on voters to reject Donald Trump as the embodiment and apotheosis of the Republican Party’s ideology. She called on — and created space for — Republicans to reject Donald Trump as an interloper, in the same terms that Fritz Rohlfing rejected Angela Kaaihue. She hammered home that point by citing a long list of Republican condemnations and counter-examples, praising prominent Republicans by name for rejecting the views, values and sentiments of Donald Trump.

Sure, there was a bit of political jiu jitsu involved in that — her praise of their expression of principles increases the already existing pressure on them to choose, clearly and explicitly, between those principles and support for their nominee. But Hillary Clinton didn’t create that awkward conflict, Donald Trump did. All she did was highlight that they now face the same choice Rohlfing faced in Hawaii — stick with your principles or stick with your nominee.

Here’s a smart Vox piece getting into all the politically savvy implications of this approach, and of its opposite. There are political reasons for some Democrats to emphasize Trump’s difference from a supposed Republican mainstream, and there are political reasons for some Democrats to emphasize Trump’s similarity and embodiment of those mainstream Republican views, values and sentiments. Steve Benen has some insights into all that as well. Clinton’s generous overture to Republicans from the top of the ticket may just be the “good cop” counterpart to the “bad cop” efforts of down-ballot Democrats working to show the connections between Trump’s values and those of his party.

But I’m not interested here in what’s “savvy,” or in playing some kind of 11-dimensional chess game. I’m thinking here, instead, of all the Very Nice People I know in white evangelicalism, Republicans all, who find themselves at a crossroads — forced to choose whether they will follow this path even all the way to Donald Trump. I am not thinking here in the abstract, but of very specific individuals — people I know and like, people I respect despite our deep political disagreements, people I’ve learned from and people I admire. I’m thinking of friends, relatives, church-members, teachers, authors, writers and correspondents.

I don’t want to defeat these folks in a scorched-earth total victory, I want to help them make the right choice at this Trumpian crossroads. I don’t want to shame them, but to help them escape the potential shame they’re in jeopardy of acquiring.

So, in those conversations over the coming weeks and months, I want to take the same path I took in discussing that Hawaii race, and the same path that Hillary Clinton took in her Reno speech. I want to extend the benefit of the doubt here and hope that they’ll latch onto it like a lifeline. That’s not because this allows them a chance to save face, but because it offers a chance at redemption — redemption of their own Republican identity, views, values and sentiments.

I don’t think that’s a sufficient, ultimate step, but I think it’s a promising first step that will allow further steps to be taken. I think it means choosing a fork in the road that can lead to the perhaps fruitful examination of where Trump comes from, and of why so many Republicans have been so eager and enthusiastic to embrace him for “saying what they’ve been thinking all along.”

When it comes to talking to those people, as individuals, as friends and neighbors, I want to be more of a hand-extending pastor and less of a finger-pointing prophet.

I want to say, “You’re better than this.” And I hope to see them seize the chance to prove me right.

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